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Right Turn
Posted at 08:45 AM ET, 02/06/2012

Santorum has his shot

A belated consensus has formed among pundits that Rick Santorum is now the final, viable not-Romney candidate left in the Republican presidential primary. Does he have a path to the nomination?

Beginning with his rationale, his claim that “We need a clear contrast in the general election to beat President Obama” strikes me as less effective than “We can get a more conservative president elected.” The former argument assumes that a less moderate candidate would do better against Obama, which isn’t necessarily the case. Moreover, it makes the contest about electability rather than ideology, which is his real calling card with the right. Santorum is at his most effective when he argues that he is to the right of Romney on health care and the Troubled Assets Relief Program and is a more consistent defender of social conservative positions. If he sticks to that line of attack, he has an opportunity to consolidate the “true conservative” vote (which Romney lost in Nevada). Whether there are enough voters of that type to win in enough states remains to be seen, but he’ll be a viable contender if follows that path.

It’s also critical for Santorum to spell out his blue-collar agenda in a way that doesn’t (as conservatives complained with Romney’s “too poor” comments) seek to play favorites among different segments of the electorate or jettison conservative economic positions.

Now, it is certainly true that Newt Gingrich’s continued presence in the race, even if he drops to the low teens or high single digits poses a significant hurdle. Santorum needs all the not-Romney votes he can get. Gingrich’s vow to stay in the race until the convention works to Romney’s advantage.

Santorum’s delegate strategy would go like this: Win the Minnesota caucus on Tuesday; win the Missouri non-binding beauty contest; place second in Colorado; run competitively in Arizona and Michigan on Feb. 28; and then rack up some wins on Super Tuesday in March. (Tennessee, Oklahoma, Ohio and North Dakota are likely his best shots.)

Santorum will be outspent and outorganized by Romney. He’ll need to defend lapses in his record (most especially on right-to-work legislation). And he’ll not be on the ballot in delegate-rich Virginia. But he is a solid conservative and a good debater who possesses very high favorability ratings among Republicans.

The biggest challenge, however, will be presenting himself as someone with presidential stature. On Saturday night, in merely talking to reporters, he forfeited the opportunity to deliver a stemwinder speech (as he did in Iowa). He needs to make the most of his opportunity on Tuesday night.

And, of course, Santorum has the perfect setting to make a splash with conservatives: the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington, D.C., this week. That may be the most critical event of the campaign for him, a chance to set a large room on fire and make his case directly to conservative activists. If he can do that and win the CPAC straw poll (which usually goes to Rep. Ron Paul by virtue of his young, activist supporters) he may pull in more endorsements, money and grass-roots support.

Is Santorum a long shot? Certainly. Can he make this a competitive race? Much weirder things have happened in this campaign.

By  |  08:45 AM ET, 02/06/2012

Categories:  2012 campaign

 
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